Baking SOS: how to solve 10 common bread problems by Luis Troyano
We have all the answers you need to give your bake a picture perfect finish and satisfying flavour. Discover Luis Troyano's advice for rescuing bread.
Great British Bake Off 2014 finalist, Luis Troyano, set up his own baking school, wrote an extensive cookbook and became a BBC Good Food favourite along the way - the lemon meringue cake recipe he created just for us is a true sight to behold.
Luis won star baker in bread week, so it's only natural we spoke to him about all things dough for our series of troubleshooting baking articles. Read on to discover how Luis would tackle common bread problems...
Problem one: My dough isn’t rising.
Luis’ solution: A lot of people think dough won't rise unless they leave it for several hours and leave it somewhere really warm. Really, you don’t need anything special to make dough rise. I always use instant yeast as it’s the most reliable, then normal cold water (if you use tepid water make sure to knead the dough for 10 minutes by hand or six minutes in a machine). You don’t need anywhere warm, just pop it on the side and it will definitely rise in one or two hours. If it doesn’t rise, it might be because of the yeast – fresh yeast can be unreliable. Also, if you use hot water or add acidic ingredients and certain spices it can kill the yeast.
Problem two: I feel I need to boost my dough's rise.
Luis’ solution: You don’t need a fancy proving drawer to get a good result - generally, if you want a boost it’s warmth you need. If you want to get scientific, water that’s about 35°C will give the dough an immediate boost. A lot of modern ovens can be set to a really low temperature, then you can prove it in about 30-40 minutes. You can even pop dough in a cold oven and put the light on – the heat from the lamp can give it a good boost. You could also try adding a teaspoon of sugar as it will give the yeast something extra to feed on.
Problem three: My finished loaf is heavy and soggy.
Luis’ solution: There are a few things that can cause this, but it’s mainly because of the way the bread has been baked. I often recommend people go to their local supermarket and buy a cheap, marble cutting board to use as a baking stone (just remember to take off the rubber legs). These boards are usually the perfect size, so you don’t need to buy an expensive £50 stone. Heat it in the oven by putting the temperature up as hot as it can go.
Always shape your loaf on a piece of non-stick, silicone paper, then when it’s proved, stick it straight onto the hot stone and reduce the temperature of the oven down to around 180-200°C. Most loaves are soggy at the bottom because they’ve not had the heat but you can simulate that at home by using a hot stone.
Problem four: When I’m kneading, the dough is sticking to my hands and the work surface.
Luis’ solution: The solution depends on what kind of bread you’re making. Things like focaccia have a runny dough to give the bread air bubbles. I make the dough, pour it into a well-oiled bowl, let it prove, then tip it out onto a well-floured surface (you could use flour or semolina), then, sprinkle some more flour on top so the dough is practically covered before quickly preparing it for the tray.
For a normal loaf, the more you knead it the less sticky it becomes. Dough is always wet and sticky at first but, once you’ve kneaded it for five to six minutes, it becomes less sticky and more glossy as it develops a skin, which is the gluten forming. Eventually, you'll get to a point where the dough isn't sticky anymore and your hands have become clean just through the kneading motion. If it seems to be taking a long time just give it another sprinkle of flour.
Problem five: I think my dough has overproved but can’t tell.
Luis’ solution: There are several things that can cause overproving. Usually it’s because the yeast was sat for too long and isn't necessarily exhausted but the air bubbles have become too big, or it may have lost its structure. I think generally, once you’ve shaped your bread, if you leave it to prove beyond 40 minutes it goes into overproved territory, which will give you a bad loaf. If you want to stop this happening, don’t let the dough double (despite what cookery books might say) – once the dough has grown by two thirds it’s good to go in the oven as it’ll continue growing in there and you get what you call the ‘oven spring’. A good way to tell whether your dough has proved sufficiently is by denting it with your finger. It should spring back to its shape gradually. If the indent doesn’t go away, usually it’s not proved enough but if it springs back really quickly it means its started to overprove and there’s too much air in it.
Problem six: My free-form loaf rises unevenly during baking.
Luis’ solution: You want to develop a skin on your loaf to stop this happening. If you were doing a cob, you’d tip out your proved dough, put some flour on your hands then do a kind of spinning and tucking action, so you’re constantly tucking the dough under itself while rotating it. It’ll start to develop a really taut skin, so it becomes like a tight football almost. If you do that for a couple of minutes you get a really nice, tight ball of dough. Pop it onto your baking tray and let it prove for 40 minutes, then the fact you’ve created that surface tension will give you the perfect cob.
Problem seven: My baked bread is too crumbly and falls apart when I cut it.
Luis’ solution: This can be because of quite a few things. Firstly, if you use too much wholewheat flour you can get a crumbly loaf, as you don’t have enough regular white flour to create gluten, which will give you the nice texture. Too much flour and not enough water can cause crumbly bread – people often do this if the dough is too sticky and they add more flour rather than kneading through it. Other culprits can be overproving or not kneading enough – the things you need to do to get a good structure.
Problem eight: My crust is flimsy and thin.
Luis’ solution: A crust is actually really difficult to achieve at home because it comes from having a really good, airtight, hot oven. That’s why factory bread is so crusty as they have such hot ovens and can throw water in to create the initial blast of steam needed for a good crust. Some people put a tray filled with water in the bottom of the oven. You can do that at home but domestic ovens are rarely airtight enough to hold that steam in place.
If you want a really great crust, try making your bread in a casserole pot with the lid on. That creates an airtight environment. Take your biggest casserole pot, get it hot in the oven, then put your shaped dough in there. It can be quite tricky to get in there, so I shape my dough on a loose bottomed tart tin lined with paper then lower it into the pot using string. Bake it in the pot for about 35-40 minutes and you’ll end up with as close to a bakery loaf as you can achieve at home.
Problem nine: My sourdough starter has died.
Luis’ solution: This is a tricky one. Sourdough starters die all the time and it’s usually because they’ve been forgotten about. They're quite hard to bring back as starters are a living creature with live bacteria. If it’s gone mouldy, pink or red, the best thing to do is get rid of it as it’s probably too far gone. If it’s just died, get rid of most of it but keep about a third then start a new batch and integrate the two together so at least you’re keeping some of the bacteria that’s there. But it’s a fine line.
Problem ten: My loaf cracked during baking.
Luis’ solution: When you put bread in the oven it expands, but you want to control that growth. Slashing the loaf horizontally or diagonally cuts through the surface and will encourage it to grow in a certain direction.